Tobacco Warehouse Issue Is Back in Court

BHA, Others Allege State, City Pressure on Federal Agency

By Raanan Geberer
Brooklyn Daily Eagle

BROOKLYN — The New York Landmarks Conservancy, the Brooklyn Heights Association (BHA), and the Fulton Ferry Landing Association went back to court Tuesday on the Tobacco Warehouse issue.

They filed an amended complaint to their federal lawsuit challenging the recent decision by the National Park Service to allow the state Parks Department to remove the 19th century Tobacco Warehouse from federal park protection, allowing for the now-roofless warehouse’s development into a theater by the performing arts group St. Ann’s Warehouse.

The warehouse, whose roof was removed after it was destabilized by fire, is a popular venue for parties, performances and concerts during the warmer months. St. Ann’s Warehouse’s plans would put a roof on the structure, an idea that the BHA opposes.

Earlier, according to attorney Jim Walden at Gibson Dunn & Crutcher, pro bono counsel for the plaintiffs, the Heights Association et. al withdrew their motion for a temporary restraining order while the National Park Service, at the request of a federal judge, reviewed its decision last year to remove the Tobacco Warehouse from the park (legally speaking, that is).

Now, however, the plaintiffs are asking for a preliminary injunction. They have filed an amended complaint in federal court that adds two additional defendants — Kenneth Salazar, the U.S. secretary of the interior, and the Brooklyn Bridge Park Development Corp. — to the original defendant, the National Park Service.

Walden said that they would most likely add the additional defendants to an accompanying state lawsuit as well. Both lawsuits were originally filed on Jan. 18.

In general, the plaintiffs say that the National Park Service’s February decision (upholding the “de-parking” of the warehouse) was the result of strong pressure from the city and state to allow the conversion plan to go through.

They claim that earlier, National Parks “was on the verge of restoring the Tobacco Warehouse, located in the park between the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges, to federal protection until city and state officials convinced them to reverse.”

They are supported in their action by Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez, Assemblywoman Joan Millman and other officials, according to a spokeswoman for the plaintiffs.

In January, Wayne Strum, acting chief of the service’s state and local programs division, said that its decision superseded a December 2008 decision to keep the landmark 19th-century warehouse within the park — a judgment that would basically have kept it for outdoor recreation use.

“OPRHP (state Parks Department) staff were apparently not aware that the plan for and ultimate uses of the [Tobacco Warehouse] and Empire Stores were ongoing at the highest levels of state and city government,” Strum said at the time.

“We will continue to pursue this case because we believe national landmarks are held in trust for us all,” said Joan Zimmerman, president of the Fulton Ferry Landing Association. “At this point, it is clear that the decisions and actions of the various governmental actors have not been for the public good.”

“Ironically, and sadly, neither Empire Fulton-Ferry State Park nor Brooklyn Bridge Park would exist without the community. Something borne of a robust community process has been derailed by backroom politics. We are hopeful the court will be the greater leveler of the playing field so that work can thereafter continue to build Brooklyn Bridge Park,” said Jane McGroarty, president of the BHA.

And attorney Walden said, “It’s not about what ultimately happens with the Tobacco Warehouse. It’s to make sure our parkland stays available for everyone and doesn’t get given away in backroom deals.” The National Park Service and the U.S. Department of the Interior both made statements via e-mail that they don’t normally comment on ongoing legislation.

In early February, three former high-ranking officials of the Brooklyn Heights Association resigned from the BHA, apparently in protest, after the organization filed its lawsuits over the Tobacco Warehouse. Walden wouldn’t comment on this issue.

Connie Pankratz of the city Law Department, who is representing the Brooklyn Bridge Park Development Corp., said, “The National Park Service has now twice determined that the use of the Tobacco Warehouse is not — and should not be — restricted to outdoor recreation. Brooklyn Bridge Park is moving forward with development of the Tobacco Warehouse as a cultural and community facility.”

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